A new special topics class called Black Geographies has been introduced this semester in the College of Liberal and Applied Arts. The class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:30 a.m. and welcomes both the younger and older generations of any race to learn about the black history around East Texas.
Dr. Jeff Roth, associate professor of geography, derived inspiration for the class from the teachings of Katherine McKittrick, an author and professor of Gender Studies at Queen’s University, and Mona Domosh, a geography professor at Dartmouth College.
“Five or six years ago, [Mona] said that we need to be aware of whiteness in scholarship and that it is a perpetuated mode of thinking that blinds us to what’s happening around us,” Roth said.
“One of the scholars in my class told me about her experience as a black professor, and I realized, ‘Oh! I can’t imagine being the only black professor on campus at a school that was 90% white.’ Police patrol cars still had confederate flags in the doors [at that time] and confederate flags were still flown at football events here during the immigration era. It’s important to understand those points of view to fix the customary patterns of thinking and address the faults that we have [as a society]. I just wanted to do better,” Roth said.
Roth also said that his research of the black experience in Nacogdoches spurred his interest in creating the Black Geographies class.
“I want to understand freedom, and I thought that the best way to understand freedom was to look at a group of people who were prevented from having freedom and [the process of] how they moved toward it,” Roth said.
The class is not only the first of its kind at SFA, but it also thrives on the differences in perspective across cultures and generations, with the class having a wide generation gap among its students. With the help of a Texas program that permits senior citizens age 65 and older to have free tuition, Roth invited seven retired citizens to join the class and enrich it with their points of view.
“The oldest person among the seven retirees was born in 1936, while the youngest among them was born in 1953,” Roth said. “The youngest person in the class as a whole was born in 2000. Having them all in a class together has been working pretty well, and having this multi-generational, multi-cultural and multi-racial experience is eye-opening for me.”
Among the seven retirees in the Black Geographies class, Roth said that there’s one veteran, a couple of teachers, and some names that those around Nacogdoches would recognize.
“There’s Dr. [Wilbert] Brown of the Brown Family Health Center, who also developed the first clinic for HIV and AIDS. There’s also Jeri Mills, who writes the black history column for The Daily Sentinel, her husband, Adell Mills, who’s a gifted scientist in the agricultural field and has helped in developing the Bovine Growth Hormone,” Roth said. “There’s also Reverend Sweat, who is a pastor at the St. James Church and director of the NAACP. They’ve all got college and graduate degrees, and we’re just learning a heck of a lot from each other.”
While Roth said that being in a class with so many greats was intimidating at first, it ended up being a very valuable experience.
“Before class started, it was intimidating, and I was thinking about all the things that could possibly happen, and what I would say if this or that happened," Roth said. "But, you know, they’re my friends, and I realized that I’m in the presence of greatness and in the presence of people who are Civil Rights champions of this town. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not worthy of this experience.’ It’s incredibly humbling. I’ve already teared up a couple of times in class."
Samantha Valencia, junior geography major from Carrollton is a student in the class. She said that the class was highly interesting.
“I think it's a good insight into a history and a geography that we don’t really know about, or that society doesn’t want us to pay attention to,” Valencia said. “I think it’s a class that’s very needed in the process of making sure that everyone’s represented, shown and gets their chance in the spotlight. There are plenty parts of history that gets covered up. Even I, as a half-Latina, half-Caucasian girl, I don’t know a lot about my Latina side, so it means a lot to see parts of history being uncovered.”
Kaitlin Stewart, junior geography history double major from Lewisville, TX, shared similar sentiments.
“Dr. Roth has invited some really awesome Civil Rights leaders, so it’s not only a white professor telling us what he thinks racism is,” Stewart said. “Those [leaders] are giving us a view of what it was really like to grow up in Nacogdoches in true fear, because, as a white person, I’m never going to understand that in a million years. I think it’s something that needs to be done, and since [SFA] has so few African American staff members, stuff like this is what could really bring the university into the 21st century.”
Dr. Roth has had such success with the Black Geographies class so far that he wants to spread it across the United States.
“I’ve started looking up other states to see if this program can work in other places,” Roth said. “I’ve already got connections at the University of Tennessee, and so I’m going to call them and tell them that they have the same tuition waiver program, and that the class can work there, too. I think if it can work here, it can work everywhere.”